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The high road to Barga

Piper and pipemaker Hamish Moore recalls the year he spent as an artist in residence in the Tuscan hill town where everyone speaks English with a Glasgow accent

IT WAS early in 2007 that I heard a fascinating programme on Radio 4. I had heard vaguely of the Tuscan hill town of Barga and knew that our celebrated artist, John Bellany, had settled and worked there. I also knew that a high proportion of the population of the town had relatives in the West of Scotland and it turns out that 60 per cent of the town's population have Scots/Italian relatives. There's a poster in the town - “The most Scottish Town in Italy” Is it any wonder?

Bellany's radio interview, however, was interesting enough to get me looking on the internet for flights to Pisa and so it was in May 2007 that a holiday was planned. It was my intention that we would hire a car, drive to Barga, spend a couple of nights there before exploring other areas of Northern Tuscany. However, nothing, not even Bellany's radio


what I would find when I arrived in Barga. I found beauty beyond belief and a community working, functioning and thriving within the walls of a thousand-year-old town. Not only that; but the stories of all the Scots/Italians are true.

There are at least six prominent businesses in the town owned and run by lovely people who had been born and brought up in the west of Scotland but have now returned home to settle in Barga. They of course speak fluent Italian, and English - with a Scottish accent. It was their ancestors who emigrated to Scotland, mainly at the beginning of the 20th century, and established the Italian ice cream parlours, the fish and chip shops and the wonderful Italian cafes, to which the Scots took with such enthusiasm and held in such affection.

I was hooked by this anthropological curiosity and the rest of the holiday was spent firmly planted in the town, exploring the narrow streets, walking on the nearby mountain paths and sampling the best and most reasonably priced restaurants I had ever come across. The car rental company was about to experience the best hire of their lives, because our little Fiat's wheels didn't turn, except to get us to and from Pisa airport.

Barga itself is in the Garfagnana Valley, sandwiched between the Apennines and the Carrera mountains that gave Michelangelo and the world its most famous marble. The town is perched beautifully high on a hilltop with stunning views of the mountains and surrounding country Its streets are just narrow enough to curtail the endeavours of most cars and the piazzas become the meeting places, thronged with people in the balmy summer evenings. The Scots Italians all come home in the summer and like birds coming into roost, they have their favourite piazzas where they congregate every evening. Walking through one of these piazzas with your ears open is like walking down Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday afternoon.

Most journeys anywhere in Barga are made on foot and this more than anything determines the thriving social interaction that is normal in the town. There is a wealth of wonderful eating places, the recipes are local and the products fresh, with flavours that burst on to the taste buds.

Over the years, Barga has attracted a high proportion of writers, artists and musicians. As well as Bellany's gallery in the Piazza Angelio, there are usually 30-40 art exhibitions mounted every summer There are opera and jazz festivals in the summer, and a thriving jazz club meets every Friday throughout the year.

There are also regular traditional Italian music sessions in the famous Aristos Bar, which is generally regarded as the unofficial cultural centre of Barga. It was at one of these informal sessions that I played a few tunes on my small pipes and quickly got chatting to Keane, the dynamic and enigmatic figure who is the founder and editor of the wonderfully informative and innovative online news paper Barganews (see As we chatted, it became obvious that we had much in common and “one topic lead seamlessly to another Between us we constructed an artist/musician residency for a year here in the old town of Barga.


Keane, being an artist himself, had long loved the concept of “artist in residence” and within 48 hours had arranged a meeting with the mayor, who approved the post for me. By the end of my week in Barga, I had been offered a year as artist in residence and given a studio in Piazza Angelio. My new workshop in this most beautiful of squares was only yards away from Beilany's Gallery and one of the best osterias in Tuscany.

It was with a sense of adventure, excitement and a wee tinge of fear that I set off on my way to Barga in January 2008 to start my new life in Tuscany With half a workshop including my Myford ML7 lathe in the back of my car, I took the overnight ferry through stormy seas from Rosyth to Zeebrugge. From there it was down through France and across the Alps, further on to Genoa and down the west coast of Italy, hugging the Mediterranean closely to my right. From there, swinging east, it was an easy route up through Lucca and the mountains and on to Barga. There, I quickly set up my tools and in my new studio started work making chanters and chanter reeds for sending back to my son Fin in our main workshop in Dunkeld.

My year in Barga was probably one of the best of my life, with new experiences and friends, a new language to speak and a wonderful daily rhythm to get used to. I had streams of visitors, which was lovely but it felt sometimes especially in the summer like I was learning what it would be like to run a very busy B&B. Living and working in this town was a rare privilege and I know that the friends I made during my year as artist in residence will be friends for life.

Inspired by Keane, I wrote a tune, Le Campane di Barga, based on the three notes sounded by the bells of the local duomo, and this was performed at a concert, which I hosted in the town's beautiful 17th century theatre. The bell ringers rang the bells to start the concert and I played small pipes along with them, filling the theatre with glorious sound. The local Barga choir sang it together with Sangstream, the community choir from Edinburgh who came out especially to perform in the concert. With Sangstream, came their director, Mairi Campbell, and her husband, Dave Francis, as well as Ken Campbell from Glasgow and Loreen Merriman from Dunkeld. Also on board was Fin, my son and his girlfriend and very fine fiddler, Sarah Hoy, and my daughter Fiona, another fine fiddler.

Three local Scots-Italians, Sonia, Adele and Vanda were the stalwarts who provided

invaluable support and help at the concert. The theatre was full to capacity.

I'm now back here at home in Portobello, Edinburgh, and working in Prestonpans and Port Seton, towns twinned with Barga. And again the connection is John Bellany. The twinning arrangement exists because of John and art is a big thing in Prestonpans. Sponsored by the Baron of Prestoungrange, Prestonpans is now on the map as Scotland's Mural Town. Along with a truly inspired team Prestoungrange has been instrumental in stimulating so much art in the town. I got to know the art group when they came out to Barga in 2008 to paint in their twinned town. The Baron's administrative assistant asked me then what I was doing when 1 came back to Scotland - because, she said, “ I think we would like to offer you a similar position in ‘The Pans' as you have here in Barga”.

I came home across the Alps again at the end of last year with my Myford once again packed in the back of the car. I also came with a treasure; an original Bellany which John kindly gave me as a way of saying thank you for playing for him at a surprise party thrown for him by his lovely wife, Helen. A treasure indeed!

I love the community here in Portobello and The Pans and I love this coast on the Firth of Forth. I also play at official events concerned with The Baron and the community and run a monthly traditional music session in The Goth in Prestonpans. I have been given one of the pottery workshops there to carry on making my pipes in conjunction with Fin in Dunkeld.

Barga was an amazing experience, but I couldn't have done it without the support of two key people to whom I will be eternally grateful. The first is Keane, who not only instantly understood the concept and organised the whole affair for me, but helped and supported me in my year there. The second is my son, Fin who with good heart and good grace took on the day to day running of our pipe-making business, and kept it all going while I was dodging out in Italy. Grazie mille a entrambi.

Hamish will run the first Barga School of Piping, Traditional Music and Dance in Barga from 20-26 June, 2010. Tutors will be Allan MacDonald, Fin Moore, Tiber Falzette and Alberto Massie (pipes), Sarah Hoy (fiddle), Chris Norman (flute) and Frank McConnell (step dance, etc). Tuition fee is £300, plus accommodation costs ranging from dormitory to B&B. For further details see